A Week In Books: Guilt and accusations in Scandanavia

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The Independent Culture

Today, Ulrika Jonsson will get married on a Swedish island. For some reason, this blessed event set me wondering about the dynamics of guilt and blame in Scandinavian cultures. Thanks to the wealth of fine crime fiction from the Nordic lands available in English, the region's mystery writers helped to crystallise my thoughts.

It was Peter Høeg and Miss Smilla who first unlocked the door for Scandinavian sleuths in Britain. Henning Mankell's Inspector Wallander then kicked it wide open, but the cooly ingenious squad of authors who followed him through have mostly been women. Now, we can enjoy fresh translations of two more polished and chilling thrillers from this eagle-eyed, but level-headed, bunch (I'm trying really hard to resist the "ice maidens" tag here).

In Missing, by the prize-winning Swedish crime writer Karin Alvtegen (translated by Anna Patterson; Canongate, £9.99), a homeless Stockholm woman finds herself branded a serial killer after she cadges a hotel room from a businessmen who is later found eviscerated. Alvtegen shuffles the plight of this outcast drifter, as more corpses pile up, with glimpses of the traumatic youth that pushed her heroine onto the streets for 15 desperate years. Psychology and suspense entwine as the luckless Sibylla becomes a suspect "so utterly perfect that the police must be rubbing their hands with glee". We know she's innocent, but how can she prove it? By solving the case herself.

Like Sibylla, the wrongly accused loner at the heart of He Who Fears The Wolf by the Norwegian writer Karin Fossum (translated by Felicity David; Harvill, £9.99) has spent time in mental hospitals - a cast-iron excuse for a witchhunt. Young, bewildered Errki has charges of bank robbery as well as murder pinned on him. Errki will, at least, have the scepticism and sympathy of Fossum's Inspector Sejer on his side, especially when the widowed cop falls for the misfit's psychologist. But that may not prove good enough.

Both books explore the process of scapegoating, and the awful human cost of false accusations, with an acuity that never disrupts the action. Both may well bring the half-Swedish Ruth Rendell irresistibly to mind. And I can hardly recommend either as carefree honeymoon reading.